Few men tread the path to glory, many can dream, but most will never walk out under the shadow of the Wembley arch to grace the hallowed turf.
One man who is familiar with treading that very path however is Stones boss, Gordon Bartlett, who was the subject of our two-minute teaser this week in the build up to Saturday’s mammoth cup clash with Bognor.
TRAILER – The road to glory
If you excuse the cliché, Bartlett’s own date with destiny came in 1990 when he guided his little-known Yeading side to FA Vase glory. So little-known were the Hayes outfit, Bartlett roused his team with the proclamation “they have a poster up in their clubhouse that says where the hell is Yeading!?“. Whatever. It worked. Yeading overcame Bridlington Town 1-0 in an Elland Road replay after the first match was drawn 0-0 at Wembley. The victory would rubber stamp GB’s growing reputation amongst non-league circles.
Admiring glances were cast and his achievements so significant that it convinced Wealdstone into enticing him to make the switch. 20-years on, and with over 1,000 Stones league & cup games under his belt, the rest is history.
To the modern day as atmosphere builds
The FA cup survives as not only English football’s longest serving competition but undoubtedly, it’s greatest. Evidenced, in part, by this week’s party atmosphere that continues to build for both camps.
The sides face off this Saturday for the first time in two seasons to contest a place in the first round proper; in fundamental terms, for the victors, the prospect of drawing a league side may lie just 90-minutes away.
And whilst Wembley would remain a pipe dream, the minimum realisation of adding another £12.5k to the coffers would represent a significant achievement for either side.
For Wealdstone, they make this stage of the competition for only the third time in the past decade after Hampton (2007) and Aylesbury (2009) where they return a record W1 L1. Only Carl Martin remains from the Stones team to have played in either of those ties, although interestingly Wealdstone’s Elliott Godfrey played against the Stones for Hampton in their 1-0 victory over the blues back in 2007.
For Bognor, and perhaps highlighting the difficulty of navigating through the qualifying rounds, it’s the first time in 11-years they’ve appeared at this stage of the competition and they did so the hard way – coming from behind to beat Conference South outfit Oxford City 4-2 earlier this month.
You can forgive boss Jamie Howell for believing Lady Luck was not smiling on them when their ball was matched second meaning an away draw for the first time in this season’s campaign. Worse for The Rocks is their dismal record against Wealdstone – only twice in 19 attempts have they left the field victorious, which of course counts for nothing come 3pm Saturday.
Statistics can change and a win for the visitors would bury any bogeys that may have previously existed.
It’s not just another game
Ahead of the game Howell acknowledged the excitement that the tie is generating but is cautiously aware of the threat Wealdstone, who will start as favourites, pose. Speaking to the Bognor Observer ahead of the tie, he said: “It’s created a real buzz around the club and it’s fantastic. But Wealdstone will be a very difficult game.”
“Wealdstone are a good team – well-organised, well-drilled. Chances will be at a premium and we mustn’t lose our concentration or give away silly goals.”
“We know them from games in the Ryman premier and they’re an excellent side who play the game the right way. We’re disappointed to be drawn away but we have had three rounds at home. We’ll go there with confidence and I’ll admit it will not just be another game –it will be massive.”
The Wealdstone production line has enjoyed a habit of producing proven goal scorers, the likes of Beckford, Morgan and even to some degree the assistance the club played in the development of the quite brilliant Britt Assombalonga – but since promotion to the Conference South goals have been harder to come by for the hosts.
Not so for Bognor who are earning a reputation for playing attractive football with just one defeat at home this season, no wonder Howell was ruing the away draw. Nonetheless, the ingredients all point to an open game of cup football in front of a fervent atmosphere set to tickle the 1,000 mark for the first time this season.
Strikers and fine lines
There are fine lines in football, Jason Prior might testify to that. One from Bognor’s very own production line, and expected to lead the line for the visitors on Saturday. Prior was prolific in his first spell at Bognor, 95 goals in just 126 matches, the sort of ratio that attracts interest from league sides. Eastleigh reportedly moved quickly to sign the target man and with £12,000 on the table, it seemed a done deal. And then Newcastle United came in. Prior went north for a three week trial and, despite it being regarded as a success, he wasn’t offered a contract.
On release from the Geordies he joined (then) League Two side AFC Wimbledon but a series of injuries including a broken leg curtailed his development keeping him sidelined for the best part of a year. A handful of loan spells followed but the striker penned a permanent deal at Bognor this summer and the goals are pummelling in once more. Still only 26, with nine league goals to his name, Prior might feel this competition provides a platform to reinvigorate his chances of league football.
Special mention must go to another striker making noise at Bognor this season. Teenage sensation, Alfie Rutherford. Four goals in his last two games, and despite being subbed in the previous round pre-turnaround, the chicken-loving striker is in good form – and hungry.
En-route to Qualifying round four, Bognor have shown a nous for beating sides at Wealdstone’s level – both Oxford City (4-2), and in the round previous, Lowestoft (2-1), have fallen to The Rocks, who began this campaign with a 2-1 home win over fellow Ryman side Mertsham. If Bognor prevail on Saturday, or indeed Tuesday should a replay be required, they will be making the first round of the FA Cup for the first time since the 1995/96 season – twenty years ago; the year they got to round two before finally succumbing 4-0 against league outfit Peterborough.
One thing Saturday’s hosts will have to contend with – pressure. The Vale has not always been a happy hunting ground in recent seasons as the Stones have tended to fare better on the road, and the demanding fan base that exists at home can either weigh the side down – or inspire them. Something that tenacious ex-Stone Chris O’Leary was quick to point out ahead of Wealdstone’s last big FA Cup clash against Rotherham some six-seasons ago. “There’s more pressure because there’s a big fan-base which is getting even bigger, so there’s more expectation but you really know about it when the fans get behind you.” O’Leary’s sentiments, some truth perhaps?
Stones were good that day but undone by the added quality the league side possessed. It remains the only time in the past ten years that the Stones have featured in round one – a win Saturday would make it only the fourth time in 30-years after Reading (0-1) 1985, Swansea (1-1, 1-4) 1986, and Rotherham (2-3) 2009.
We started with Gordon, so we should finish with him. Often handicapped with restrictive budgets, he’s had to shrewdly manage his stars and is no stranger to making tough decisions over the course of a campaign. Connor Calcutt, Dan Brown, Ryan Hope to name three players that have all been either dual registered or shipped on… But this week, however, Stones had to wave goodbye to another – Matt Lowe. The combative midfielder has been instrumental in the Stones slow creep up the Conference South table but, with his month’s loan expiring, has now returned to Cambridge United. Wealdstone will miss his endeavour and athleticism – Bartlett will need to be shrewd in plugging that gap.
Lowe’s absence may open the door for Corcoran to remind supporters why he was a worthy addition to the Conference South survival bid in the early months of 2015, alternatively Bartlett might finally throw Davies back into the mix. The playmaker forced into another cameo role from the bench last Saturday against Havant – it takes more than special strikes to sway GB.
It’s feel good factor week at Wealdstone with the news that freebets.co.uk have agreed a lucrative one-year sponsorship deal on stadium naming rights with the option of an extension emphasising the importance of a good cup run. President Paul Rumens described the deal as “groundbreaking”; such deal can only add to the frenzied media-buzz that has been richly enjoyed over the past couple of weeks and it’ll provide some welcome relief for Commercial team.
In terms of the game, the key battles will be had in midfield. Alex Parsons, who netted twice from the bench against Oxford, is expected to play after being rested at the weekend. The Worthing plumber who once played football for Bournemouth, recently won The Suns hunt for a hunk competition (seriously!) why that’s relevant, no idea, but he’s highly rated at Bognor and looks likely to be recalled.
For the Stones, they’ll be big boots to fill in midfield with a dilemma over who should partner Godfrey, this season’s most consistent performer, in the middle of the park. Whoever steps in will be in for a game as Bognor look to play their expansive passing game.
Bognor who sit 6th in the division below have nothing to prove – they’re already an accomplished side, further evidenced by dumping out two Conference clubs thus far, but, with the additional coverage Stones have generated in the past few weeks and the upturn in results, I have to tip the home side. The atmosphere will play its part, it’ll be noisier than it has been in weeks and I think that’ll see the blues home. Just. 2-1.
P.S. The winners will be ball number 69 in Monday’s draw and would need to draw a ball 48 or lower to meet a league side.
One last question – can he bring his rattle?